A Closer Look At The MLS MVP Race / by Drew Olsen

Editor's Note: This was the first of many articles by Jacob, who can be found at @MLSAtheist on twitter. It's quite amazing, and I encourage you to read it. He's one of several wonderful writers that we are adding to the site in the coming weeks. Please give him a follow and good feedback, as you have for Drew, Matty, and me. This is all part of putting together newer, better site content.

Not long ago, I saw a piece on ESPN handicapping the MLS MVP race, featuring the one and only Alexi Lalas. Say what you will about Lalas, but what he said on this topic got my mind jogging. The season was still a couple weeks from being complete, but the Redhead tipped Marco Di Vaio over Mike Magee for the award, based mostly on his higher goal total. He explained that goals are the rarest and most important event in soccer, so the guy who scores the most (and in the most games, giving his team a better chance to win) is the best candidate for the award. But here at American Soccer Analysis, we know that just because a guy puts the final touch on a goal doesn’t necessarily make him the most valuable component of that play, let alone that season.

Anyway, Lalas had a point: goals are important. And whether you like it or not, goal scorers and creators are always going to be the award winners in this sport. But still, looking solely at goal totals seems far too simplistic when handicapping the race for MVP. So, as we are wont to do around here, I tried to delve a little deeper.

First of all, you can contribute to goals without being the one to actually kick it into the net. I’ll do the most obvious thing possible, and just add assists to the equation. Additionally, not every player gets to play the same amount. Especially in MLS, where some of the top players are constantly called away for international duty, some MVP candidates only play in two-thirds of his team’s games. But if the premise here is that the award is intended to go to the most prolific goal creator, we should really look at how many goals they create when they’re actually on the field.

Here are the ten top MVP candidates (I know they probably aren’t all that deserving, but ten is a good round number and I’m a little OCD), and how many goals they’ve created, as well as their per 90 minute rate.

Player

Goals

Assists

G+A Per 90

M. Magee

21

4

.806

M. Di Vaio

20

2

.698

R. Keane

16

11

1.22

J. Morales

8

10

.710

Camilo

22

6

1.04

D. Valeri

10

13

.909

F. Higuain

11

9

.694

D. Fagundez

13

7

.742

T. Cahill

11

5

.642

G. Zusi

6

8

.535

It’s no surprise to see Keane and Camilo leading the way with over one per game, as they have the highest sum of goals and assists, and Keane did his work in fairly limited minutes. But again, goals and assists are a little too superficial for us here at ASA. After all, some goals are the fault of terrible defending, goalkeeping, or just some really fortunate bounces; instead it’s preferred to look at chance creation. If a player is consistently creating chances, it’s nearly inevitable that it should lead to more goals. Now rather than just the shots that actually end up in the net, we’ll run the numbers regarding shots, as well as passes that lead to shots (key passes) for the same players:

Player

Shots

Key Passes

Shots Created Per 90

M. Magee*

114

65

5.77

M. Di Vaio

89

25

3.62

R. Keane

54

53

4.86

J. Morales

33

94

5.01

Camilo

95

37

4.91

D. Valeri

55

59

4.51

F. Higuain

69

115

6.39

D. Fagundez

43

27

2.60

T. Cahill

47

19

2.65

G. Zusi

41

75

4.43

This time we’ve got a couple of different leaders, as Federico Higuain and Mike Magee take the lead thanks to their trigger-happy styles. Higuain’s incredible number of key passes, despite playing for a middling Crew team, should raise some eyebrows---the dude’s an absolutely fantastic attacker.

Still, I have an issue with just looking at shots created. After all, we know not all shots are created equal. Without looking up the shot location data of every one of the shots in the above table, I think there’s still a way to improve the statistics: add in a factor of accuracy.

For Higuain, creating over six shots a game is terrific. But from watching a lot of Columbus games, I can tell you that plenty of those shots were low percentage bombs from 30 yards out, and plenty of others were taken by other fairly inept Crew attackers. To try to factor this in, I’d like to look at how many shots on target each player creates - the ones that actually have a chance at becoming goals. While shots on goal stats for individual players are easy to find, it’s tougher to decipher when key passes lead to shots that test keepers rather than boots into the stands. To compensate, I used each player’s team percentage of shots on target to estimate how many key passes turned into shots on goal, leading to the final following table:

Player

Shots on Goal

Key Passes

Team Shot%

SoG Created Per 90

M. Magee*

50

65

48% / 51%

2.68

M. Di Vaio

56

25

54%

2.21

R. Keane

31

53

48%

2.56

J. Morales

19

94

52%

2.68

Camilo

56

37

49%

2.76

D. Valeri

31

59

49%

2.36

F. Higuain

36

115

43%

2.96

D. Fagundez

30

27

50%

1.57

T. Cahill

22

19

48%

1.25

G. Zusi

21

75

42%

2.00

There we have it. My endorsement for MVP this season, based on a combination of Alexi Lalas’ inspiration and my own twisted statistical mind, is Federico Higuain of the 16th-best team in the league, the Columbus Crew.

Just kidding, guys! Obviously the MVP debate should take more into account than who creates shots on goal. Defense, leadership, your team actually winning---all of these things should and do matter. But still, I think this was an interesting exercise and hopefully opened at least one set of eyes to how prolific Higuain is.

Finally, a few thoughts/takeaways in bullet form:

  • Higuain was held back by his team’s terrible shooting accuracy, but not as much as Graham Zusi. Now I understand why analytic folks like Sporting Kansas City’s chance creation so much, yet the team hasn’t always seen the results.
  • Diego Fagundez is incredibly selective about his shooting - almost 70% of his shots hit the target.
  • Javi Morales doesn’t shoot much for being so prolific at creating others shots. Reminds me of this post by Tempo Free Soccer---really interesting as far as categorizing attackers as shooters vs. providers.

*Since Magee was traded mid-season, his season total stats were harder to find. While I used Squawka for everyone else’s stats, I ended up having to tally Magee’s game-by-game stats from Who Scored. It’s possible that the two sites have different standards for what constitutes a shot or key pass, and that could’ve skewed the data for Magee. I’m not sure any of them look too far out of whack that I’m too suspicious, but it’s possible so I thought it should be noted.